Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

I probably won’t blog every week about my thoughts about Doctor Who — indeed, I probably won’t watch it every week, as I don’t have a TV — I was visiting friends to watch it this week, as the debut of a new Doctor, and a female Doctor at that, and a *Northern* female Doctor at that, is something we were all keen to see. But I did see it this week, and thought I’d get my initial thoughts down, before seeing what the more general reaction has been.

Overall, I’d say this is probably the best debut of a new Doctor since… well, “Rose” seemed pretty good at the time, but in retrospect I was probably giving it far more benefit of doubt than I should have, and since I’ve not rewatched it in thirteen years, I may well not think of it as highly if I saw it now, especially as I’m more aware of all Davies’ writing flaws.

Other than that, it’s the best debut of a new Doctor since “Castrovalva”.

Before people take that as overly high praise, remember I am not a fan of the post-2005 series in general, though I’ve enjoyed several individual episodes, that the McGann TV movie has some fairly basic structural problems, and that McCoy and Colin Baker both debuted with what it’s safe to say are generally considered their weakest stories. So I’m not holding this episode to a ridiculously high standard.

But it did easily clear the basic bar set for it, and it did some stuff that I wasn’t expecting (as well as some stuff that I was).

First, the one actual criticism I’d make is the YouTube framing sequence, where first we think that Ryan is talking about the Doctor but later it turns out that he was actually talking about his grandmother. This is hack and cliched, and was the one moment in the entire episode that felt entirely off to me.

But on the other hand there was another moment involving Ryan that gave me great hope that this series will be much better than it has been, and which almost made me cheer.

Ryan, for those who don’t watch the show or don’t remember details, is dyspraxic, as am I. And at nineteen years old he can’t ride a bike — I still can’t, at forty, and nor can I drive a car. At the start of the story, his grandmother and step-grandfather are patiently trying to teach him to ride, and he keeps falling off, and eventually gets frustrated and throws his bike off the top of a hill. This is entirely accurate and about what would have happened to me if I hadn’t given up on trying to ride a bike long before I turned nineteen.

But then, his grandmother dies, and he remembers her patience in trying to teach him this skill, and he’s determined to teach himself, so he goes back, and finds his bike, and still falls off. And tries again. And falls off. And tries again. And falls off. And that’s it.

We don’t see him suddenly, magically, get better through sheer force of will. We don’t see him manage to “overcome” his disability. He’s still disabled. He will remain disabled.

And this is impprtant for multiple reasons:

Firstly, disability representation matters, and dyspraxia is one of those disabilities that those who don’t have it don’t understand at all, and that even many dyspraxic people (at least when I was growing up) were unaware of — you don’t realise that no-one else has the same difficulties you do in doing seemingly simple tasks, you just think you’re rubbish (it’s like autism in that respect — and dyspraxia plus undiagnosed autism is a real bastard of a combination for self-esteem, in case you were wondering). It’s also great that Ryan is a *black* dyspraxic teenager — normally, to the extent that the whole cluster of disabilities like that (autism, ADHD, dyslexia, and dyspraxia all seem to cluster — it’s comparatively likely that if you have one you’ll have a bunch of them) is represented at all, it’s represented by… well, someone like me. A white boy or man.

Secondly, people “overcoming” their disability is a dangerous, ableist, trope. It puts pressure on disabled people and says that if you’re still actually disabled it’s your own fault for not trying enough. It might, eventually, be possible for a dyspraxic person to learn to ride a bike, a bit. But it’s not something that can be done with just a little bit of extra trying — it might take literally years of practice, every day, the same amount of practice it might take someone else to become a concert pianist. Saying otherwise is obscenely harmful, and too many TV series do that kind of thing for a feelgood ending.

And thirdly, and in some ways least important but in other ways most, what I just said — most TV series would go for the cheap emotional boost of having the character succeed. It’s a cliche, and it’s dull. And this episode didn’t go for the cliche, and instead went for a more complex, more interesting, option.

There’s a lot more I liked about the episode as well — the little nod to Tomb of the Cybermen showing that this is still the same character as the second Doctor, the fact that the music is no longer by Murray Gold, the fact that it’s colour-graded to look like naturalistic TV drama rather than the unreal palettes of most of the post-2005 series, the fact that the characters were grounded in real working-class jobs (my dad has worked as both a nurse and a bus driver, so this feels grounded to me in a way that other series haven’t).

Whitaker was good — I could go into detail about her performance, but right now I think that any negatives I said would be taken as me being on the “the Doctor can’t be a girl, ewww!” side of things, and I don’t want to give an unbalanced assessment, so I’ll just leave that for now, except to say that I have no trouble believing her as the Doctor, which has not been the case with some other previous actors in the role.

But for me, other than the dyspraxic character and the realism of much of it (other than them getting the trains wrong, of course), the thing that struck me the most was that the script was *competent*. It’s not a great script (I wouldn’t expect greatness from Chibnall), but it was functional in a way that, frankly, most of the scripts by previous showrunners haven’t been — Davies because he didn’t care enough about plot mechanics to have plots actually make sense, and Moffat because he would try to be cleverer than he was.

It felt, actually, very Terrance Dicks — it had a baseline competence to it on the crafting level that much of the post-2005 series hasn’t had. The one moment of subverting the cliche and the one moment of going for the obvious cliche I talked about above sort of cancel each other out in that respect, and the rest of the episode went by, almost uniquely, without me noticing any horrendous failures of craft (the way the Doctor defeated the monster at the end wasn’t quite well enough set up, but it was papered over better than similar events in Davies scripts). 
In everything other than the areas of representation — of disability, gender, and ethnicity — this was a reassuringly traditional, competent, episode. It’s very wisely chosen to play everything safe except for the new stuff, but that’s what makes the most sense for something that has to introduce so many new parts. I don’t think it’ll go down as a classic episode, but it was an enjoyable episode, one I can imagine rewatching with pleasure, and one I can easily see as the opening to a classic series.
I liked it.

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20 Responses to Doctor Who: The Woman Who Fell to Earth

  1. Fred Herman says:

    Liked it (and Whitaker) fine, but have one minor pedantic quibble: they’re from “five thousand galaxies away”, and they use Earth as their hunting ground? There’s really nothing closer?

    Also seemed a little odd for Graham(?) and/or Ryan not to have the slightest irrational twinge of “She’d still be alive if it wasn’t for you, Doctor!” , unfair thought that might be.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      Ah, but confusion about cosmic scale is a Doctor Who staple, to the point where I just assume that the words “galaxy”, “universe”, “solar system” and “light year” all have radically different meanings in that universe.

      I don’t think they’d have had that twinge, because she *wouldn’t* have been alive anyway — the Doctor saved her life by removing the gene bomb, and also she died doing exactly what the Doctor had told her not to. She would have been just as dead either way — and so would they…

      • Fred Herman says:

        Ah, good points — though the galaxy thing, as with similar items from 40+ years of SFTV, film & comics, still irritates.

      • plok says:

        I was thinking that maybe this particular alien race, by the standards of their spacefaring neighbours, just aren’t very badass? Maybe, indeed, where they live they are a subjugated race, and to preserve their icky prestige-based hierarchy they have to look WAY FAR OUT, so as not to potentially tread on more powerful toes, trespass on somebody else’s sphere of influence, etc. etc. “Tim Shaw” is a bit of a mess, too, isn’t he? His backstory is probably pretty tragic and/or pathetic by the standards of his species…

        Just a thought.

  2. Laurence Cox says:

    Interesting to see the forthcoming series characters at the end of the episode (not just the usual trailer for the next episode). Is the Doctor going to rescue the missing sister from stasis on Tim Shaw’s planet? I also thought that the killing of kebab man was gratuitious, it didn’t do anything to advance the plot.

    • Fred Herman says:

      I kept feeling like “Tim Shaw” was a reference I wasn’t getting. Google lists an American football player and an actor by that name?

  3. Simon BJ says:

    I wonder if it might have been suggested from Scrimshaw, the carving of ivory by sailors, the ivory being essentially teeth. And I liked it, but then there’s only about 16 episodes of (tv) Doctor Who I dislike over 34 years.

  4. Fred Herman says:

    Hey, that’s clever!

  5. glyncoch says:

    I can’t help feeling that the feminists should be getting upset about a woman having to act an alien. (The Dr is a Time Lord, and definitely not human, and probably not even gendered – except for the convenience of appearing to the audience to be non-threatening and distinct from the “nasty aliens”) So may be they are beginning to accept that that the English male includes neuter objects like space aliens, mankind and manhole covers.

    But Whitaker’s acting was entirely up to the role, with facial expressions and mannerisms that were almost identical to William Hartnell. I wonder how much of the back catalogue she has watched, and whether she will managed to act each of her predecessors? Lets hope that the script gives her the opportunity….My Grand daughters loved this one..

    • misssbgmail says:

      She’s purposefully not watched any since being cast, from what I’ve been told. Of course that doesn’t say how much she watched BEFORE being cast…

      • glyncoch says:

        Difficult to have avoided seeing some Dr Who, I would have thought – though maybe it is the script writer’s research that is shining through her acting! I was impressed by one or two scenes anyway. If she keeps it up, it looks as if she will be around for a long time.

        • misssbgmail says:

          I very much enjoyed her performance, and am looking forward to more.

          • David Lewis says:

            She must be very right for the role. A lot of people compared her to eccleston. I could see that it might be the type of thing you’d write if David Tennant was female, others again saw Matt Smith. So she must have hit all the buttons

            • plok says:

              Ha, I find myself wanting to make a Pertwee comparison! Pertwee-C. Baker-Whittaker: a series-within-a-series? An energetic, physical Doctor! But the protectiveness being gradually stripped of the patronizing as we go along…

              Like if the Doctor had been Jo!

              Just a thought…

              Not sure I like it when the Doctor says things like “my name is The Doctor”, but whaddaya gonna do, it’s the NuWho Era.

  6. misssbgmail says:

    YES it felt very Uncle Terrance! That’s exactly it!

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